Jobs They Love: Saltmaker
Updated: May 6, 2021
Lucky are they who look forward to Mondays with joy in their hearts! Meet the folks whose talents and passions are happily matched to the jobs they have.
The beaches of Cape Cod in the 19th century were dotted with 100s of windmills, of every shape and size, twirling briskly in the ocean breezes. They weren’t powering grist mills or harnessing wind energy. They were used to pump seawater into the collecting pans of the many saltworks that thrived there. After fishing, salt making was the second biggest industry that fueled the booming economy of Cape Cod of the time. Fisheries relied on salt, and plenty of it, to preserve their catches. But by 1900, what with the advent of the railroad and subsequent development of refrigeration, salt making on Cape Cod became a thing of the past.
Briny tides still lap the sandy beaches of Cape Cod and a few local food devotees have revived the bygone business of harvesting natural sea salt, using the slow process of evaporation. Chris Weidman is one of those wild food artisans who has lovingly built a thriving cottage industry doing it.
Weidman has rarely strayed very far from the water. He was raised near the marshlands of Stratford, Connecticut, and the beach town of Chatham, Massachusetts. He’s been a commercial fisherman, plying the waters off Nantucket Shoals and Georges Bank, an oceanographer for MIT and a research coordinator at Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.
Now Weidman devotes his days to wild food gathering which is his passion and writes a blog about it called Monomoit Wild Salts & Sugars. He set up his first salt works in 2013 on land in Chatham that had been in his family for generations. He continues to “make salt” these days at another seaside location in the nearby town of Falmouth, using sea water harvested from the shorelines of Chatham, Falmouth and some other Cape towns.
In late winter, Weidman heads up the Hudson River Valley to his daughter’s farm. There, he taps maple trees for the clear sap that he patiently boils down in a large, steaming “sugar house” cauldron to make maple syrup the old-fashioned way.
Chris Weidman sells his small batch sea salts and maple syrup at various shops and farm stands in Massachusetts and New York.
How much salt can you get from a gallon of seawater?
Seawater is about 3 percent salt (note that maple sap is similar, about 2 percent sugar). I can make about one pound of salt from a 5-gallon bucket of seawater, or 3+ ounces per gallon.
Do you need a permit to collect sea water to make salt?
Not that I know of, currently. My approach is to collect seawater from areas that are open to shellfishing since these waters must, by law, be regularly tested by the state. My take: if it’s good enough for eating the shellfish growing in these waters then it’s more than good enough for making salt.
Do sea salts gathered from different locations have distinct “terroirs” like wines do?
Well, theoretically yes. But my sense is that it’s overwhelmed by other factors, particularly the weather -- wind, temperature, humidity, etc. -- on the day that the brine is “brought to salt” (salt precipitating from its brine.) This can strongly affect the crystallization process, resulting in salt with a particular texture and chemistry.
What’s the difference between sea salt and land salt?
There are many differences between salts that people eat. Sea salt by definition is made directly from seawater. There are many methods for doing that. I use direct solar evaporation in an outdoor, open-to-the-sky, setting to bring my brine to salt during the summertime (May-October).
“Land salt,” though not really a common term, usually refers to rock salt, or salt deposits exposed on the surface or mined underground, and salt springs or groundwater that’s passed through underground salt deposits, emerging on the surface. The area around Syracuse, NY is well known for its salt springs. Salt spring water of course must also be evaporated to make salt, and it’s usually saltier than seawater.
Have our changing climate patterns affected the wild food resources you work with -- sea water and maple trees?
The ocean’s seawater has changed in subtle ways. It’s more acidic and warmer, but not so much in a way that affects salt making. Mapling is another issue. Certainly, the consensus is that the maple season – February to April in New England/New York -- has shortened a bit and shifted earlier by maybe up to a week or so on average. But there is always a great variation year to year in maple seasons, in any case. A greater concern for many of us is the health of maple forests, particularly in the more southern regions of New England and New York where sugar maples, the dominant forest component, are nearer their natural southern limit.
You’ve done many different and interesting things in your life so far. Is there a common thread that connects all your various experiences?
I’m just curious about everything, but stepping back a bit, I certainly have never strayed too far from water and particularly the ocean. Even in upstate New York, I’m still in the Hudson River Valley with its strong connection to the sea.
The Hudson River is tidal (though not salty) all the way to Albany, after all. The small city of Hudson, 120 miles north of New York City, was founded after the Revolution as a whaling town. My maple “sugarbush,” or forest, is only a half-mile from the Hudson River and I often hear the fog horns of ocean-going ships passing up and down the river in the thick fogs of maple season from my sugar house.
Being a commercial fisherman in my 20s also set my sense of satisfying work, I think: very physical, close to the natural world. For me, time is felt in seasons, the weather that day, the rising and setting of sun, those are my clocks. Not Monday through Friday, not 9 to 5. The season and weather tell me what my workday will be like and what is to be done.
Photo: Chris Weidman